By John Matson
Planetary scientists may soon get the dirt on a Martian moon—literally. A Russian spacecraft will soon depart for Phobos, the larger of Mars's two tiny moons. It will attempt to land there, scoop up some soil and return it to Earth for analysis. The spacecraft, called Phobos-Grunt, launches as soon as November 8th.
Phobos–Grunt is bringing a couple of tagalongs on the trip. One is China's first Mars craft, a small satellite called Yinghuo 1 that will orbit Mars. The other is a project of the nonprofit Planetary Society: a biological experiment called Phobos LIFE. It's a canister smaller than a hockey puck loaded with little organisms—bacteria, plant seeds, even some tiny invertebrate animals called water bears.
If all goes according to plan, the critters in Phobos LIFE will spend three years in space on the round-trip journey. The idea is to see if ancient life could have survived space travel to migrate between the planets on meteoroids. But Mars missions are complex, and plenty have failed. Phobos-Grunt will be Russia's first [Mars] attempt since an unsuccessful launch 15 years ago. Here's wishing Phobos–Grunt, and its passengers, a safe journey.